Continuing business integration in Asean needs to be complemented by more work to promote social and cultural integration among the region’s people, say student leaders.
Former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva responds to a question during the Asean Student Leaders Forum.
Speakers at the five-day Asean Student Leaders Forum in Bangkok said the Asean agenda, rather than the individual agendas of each nation, needed to be paramount.
However, it would be up to the people themselves to push for greater integration since governments can only supply the framework, said former Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, one of the keynote speakers.
The forum, the second of its kind, was held at Chulalongkorn University after last year’s event at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Students as well as vice-presidents from more than 20 universities across the region took part.
The theme of this year’s discussion was “Toward the Asean Dream”, which attracted a lot of feedback about what was being done and what needs to be done to achieve this goal.
“The forum was intended to be a place for young leaders to share their visions of the Asean community and to initiate collaborative efforts to make their dreams come true,” said Itt Thirarath, the president of the forum’s organising committee.
“After all, the youth of today are the adults of tomorrow, and it is our very generation that will have to ride the first wave of impacts from the Asean Economic Community in 2015.”
The importance of higher education and human resource development for the future Asean community was highlighted in 1995 when the Asean University Network (AUN) was established, but it took more than 15 years before formal cooperation among students of Southeast Asian nations developed.
Student leaders at the Bangkok forum took part in workshops that focused on the many steps that still have to be walked to reach the “Asean Dream”. Further group communications connected students from the different nations and universities, As well, a panel discussion on youth and student cooperation in Asean featured Prof Vitit Muntarbhorn of Chulalongkorn University and Benjaporn In-ngam, who works on collaboration among the young generation in the Mekong region. Among the highlights of the event was the speech by Mr Abhisit, who underlined the importance connectivity plays in building a community such as Asean, not only in terms of economic value but also socio-cultural relations.
“A lot of entrepreneurs and businesses actually see the Asean Economic Community as a challenge or threat rather than an opportunity, because basically the companies that will now take advantage of the economic community tend to be the bigger companies or the already multinational companies,” he said.
Governments can help these smaller businesses get together with other small or medium-sized companies around the region and take advantage of a market of more than 600 million people, he said. But businesses must be aware of both the possible competition and the opportunity presented by integration.
To benefit from the new economic advantages, which everybody expects to emerge in the course of establishing an economic community, there first needs to be a shift from single domestic political agendas toward an Asean agenda that is given more importance on the national level.
But creating a community goes further, Mr Abhisit continued: “Governments and leaders can only provide a framework. But the real benefits and the real establishment of a community can only be done by the people. It’s really up to the people to build this community.”
Without intercultural connections between the peoples of the Southeast Asian nations, the region will never benefit fully from new rules and regulations or economic benefits achieved by the governments and the association.
“I believe that the younger generations really hold the key to the successful establishment of the Asean community,” he said, pointing out that without their interest in new ways, new technologies and better organisation, the community will never realise all the potential benefits it could bring.
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Writer: Jurgen Gabel